Police offer tips for "couch surfers"

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Would you sleep in a strangers home to save a buck while traveling?

There is a whole web site devoted to a network of people who call themselves "Couchsurfers." CouchSurfing.org features people from all over the world, looking for a couch to crash while they visit.

There are hundreds of couch surfers in the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry, offering up a place to rest your head. It is cheaper than a hotel, but is it safe?

Making travel plans online? Zola Delbrun suggests skipping the hotel reservations and making a connection on the surfing website.

"It's great. It's fun. You meet wonderful people," Delbrun said.

Delbrun first heard about CouchSurfing a few years ago. It's a world-wide network of people,  who through the website, connect with others who may have a free bed or couch to crash on.

"It's more about the comradery. Meeting people from other places," she said. "In a way, it's like I am traveling to France this weekend because there is a woman from France coming."

Of course, these people are complete strangers in many cases. Delbrun says the website allows you to be selective, check references and read couchsurfer feedback.

"There have been requests from people, and I look at their profile and just know it's not a match," Delbrun said. "They are either way too young or just want to party party party party party. That's not my lifestyle and not what I want in my home."

Couchsurfers like Delbrun stand by the safety of the website. It's not like Myspace or Facebook, where it is easy to join. On couchsurfing, you have to go through several steps, among them you have to verify your identity with a credit card and make a donation, which will also verify your location.

"If the profile and what shows up at your door are two different things, then I just don't unlock it," Delbrun said.

Delrbun has hosted more than 30 people in the last year, and says she hasn't had a bad experience. "Not yet," she said.

However, she recommends using common sense safety precautions. "You know, maybe, the first night you are staying with somebody, don't go down to the pub and get totally wasted," Delrbun said.

"There is a tremendous amount of danger," Captain Larry Branson, Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department, told WTOC.

Captain Branson had never heard of couchsurfing until we told him. He decided to do some research. "A rape in England. Tales of robbery," he said.

In a perfect world, Branson says the concept is nice, but it's not reality.

"It is literally crashing in a bed where you don't know the person," he said. "When it comes down to it you have to make that choice. Do you lay your head down and go to sleep, drop your defenses, surrender my valuables to someone I don't know in a foreign land, or other state, far from home."

Savannah hasn't had any couchsurfing related crimes, but Branson says predators are always looming, safeguards or not.

"I can say anything and do anything to get you to believe me and have you right where I want you," he said.

"The police should know about couchsurfing, but since they don't it means there haven't been any problems," Delbrun said.

Delbrun says she knows the risks involved, and lets friends know when a couchsurfer is staying with her. "Just in case," she said.

After a break, she will return to couchsurfing.

"I will go back to letting people surf, because it is fun," Delbrun said.

Branson suggests background checks on people you connect with on the couch surfing website. Here are some other tips:

  • Check website references and feedback.
  • Avoid profiles lacking complete information.
  • Do you own background check. Go to the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police and request a check for people staying with you, or you may be staying with.

CouchSurfing.org was set up back in 1999. The site also offers safety tips and guidelines for users.